This isn’t about food: Emergency food aid, sanctioning and the stigma of poverty

At the first of our events bringing together food bank volunteers and others involved in emergency food aid in Scotland, there was very little talk of food. Exactly one week before the General Election fifty participants met at the STUC building in Glasgow, as yet unaware of the full extent of the further welfare cuts we are now facing. It was poverty, and in particular the crises caused by benefits sanctioning (evidenced as a key driver of the growth of food bank use) which focused the discussion.

The themes of the morning’s event were: sanctions and the Scottish Welfare Fund; working with advice services; and the stigma of poverty.  At the Poverty Alliance we believe that to tackle food poverty requires effort to challenge its structural and economic causes.  Our research found that emergency food aid providers also feel strongly about these issues and would like better information on how to offer effective support. As one participant commented:

“The food banks, in my opinion is a sticking plaster, it’s the underlying cause that needs to be dealt with. We talk about what needs to be done, well we are giving people food, why can’t other people give them the means to feed themselves – i.e. don’t cut their money, or give them nothing to live on”.[1]

The first speaker of the morning was Angus McIntosh, Senior Solicitor at Castlemilk Law and Money Advice Centre. Angus spoke about their work last year in establishing a relationship with food banks in the South East of Glasgow. In the twelve months since they began this partnership working, the Law Centre has taken on approximately 300 clients engaged through the food bank. The main problem experienced by the food bank clients Angus has worked with is to do with benefits (over 60%), namely sanctions. He highlighted that while the success rate for sanctions appeals is high, the number of those appealing sanctions is very low. The vulnerability of clients and the convoluted nature of the process were stressed as key barriers to appealing benefits sanctions. It is important that food banks have access to specialist advice so that those who have been sanctioned have support to make an appeal.

Hanna McCulloch, Policy and Parliamentary Officer at Child Poverty Action Group Scotland, provided important context on trends in poverty levels and the cost of living. She highlighted that the Institute of Fiscal Studies predicts that by 2020 there will be up to 100,000 more children living in poverty in Scotland alone. The IFS has also stated the huge increase in child poverty projected is largely as a result of ongoing changes to the tax and benefits system.

On sanctions, Hanna highlighted that these have always been a feature of the benefits system but what is new their length and the extent to which they are being imposed. The minimum period of a sanction is four weeks, but that this can rise with subsequent sanctions up to three years. For this reason it is very important to appeal sanctions early.

An important source of support for those facing hardship is the Scottish Welfare Fund which replaces the Social Fund in Scotland and is administered by Local Authorities, not the DWP. Hanna highlighted some myths about the fund:

SWF Myths:

You can only get loans – not grants

You need to be in receipt of means tested benefits

You can’t apply if you’ve been sanctioned

You can’t get an award unless you are a UK resident

Her key messages to delegates were the importance of getting good quality advice to food bank users so that they know their rights and what the processes are for accessing support. She also emphasised the need to challenge sanctions and for people to be made aware of the process involved.

Carla McCormack, Policy and Parliamentary Officer with the Poverty Alliance gave a presentation which focused on the stigma of poverty. She drew on data from social attitudes surveys which highlight a hardening of public attitudes towards people who are in receipt of benefits. In 2010, 23 per cent of people thought that poverty was due to laziness and lack of willpower .

She also highlighted the misunderstandings which exist about the real drivers of poverty and the growing sense of there being a distinction between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.  As many as 87 per cent of Scottish people believe that a major cause of child poverty is that “parents suffer from alcoholism, drug abuse, or other addictions”.

The stigma and sense of being ‘undeserving’ impacts on those who are claiming social security benefits, they report feeling judged by others and mistreated by job centre staff. This stigmatisation may also reduce benefit take-up. Carla emphasised that by blaming individuals for their poverty, we are ignoring the real causes and failing to hold Governments to account.

Feedback from the session highlighted the value of networking with other groups and agencies – 80 per cent reported making new connections at the event. Sixty per cent said they learnt new things about sanctions and the Scottish Welfare Fund, while almost a third plan to do things differently in their organisations following discussion on stigma and challenging attitudes to poverty.

The growth in emergency food aid is a worrying indication of the rapidly rising levels of extreme hardship facing people in Scotland. As researchers and commentators have widely reported, food banks are neither a sustainable nor a socially just solution to the problem of poverty. By raising awareness and discussion of the structural drivers of poverty, our aim is to keep the focus on how we can ensure food bank users are linked in to welfare rights advice and other forms of support – a first step in addressing the reason they have had to use the food bank in the first place.

We will continue these discussions at our next event which is on 16th June in Edinburgh and we have further events planned for Aberdeen (27th August) and Inverness (22nd October). If you have any questions, please contact: Maryanne.macleod@povertyalliance.org.

[1] MacLeod, M.A. Making the Connections: A study of emergency food aid in Scotland. [www.foodaidscotland.org].

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